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Novelist Farzana Doctor.Tanja-Tiziana Burdi/Handout

A lot has changed since Farzana Doctor and I last met. Back in 2019, there was a lopsided heart latte between us and chatter from neighbouring tables we had to enunciate over. This time, we were framed on bright screens in front of makeshift offices in T-shirts we could probably wear to bed.

Despite the shift, she’d managed to keep the same short bouncy hairstyle. And she still spoke with her hands when she felt passionate, flashing the tattoo of her late mum’s name on her forearm.

These big and small habits that harbour a sense of familiarity when revisiting old relationships are a dominant theme in her new carefully structured poetry collection, You Still Look The Same.

Doctor wrote the collection throughout her forties, a period she found to be the most challenging in her life so far.

“Every decade has taught me things, of course, but this decade taught me things as though my body was a punching bag,” she said.

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Born in Zambia to Indian parents, Doctor immigrated to Canada when she was a baby. The Toronto-based author has written five novels, including Six Meters of Pavement, and her most recent work, Seven, won the 2011 Dayne Ogilvie Prize from the Writers’ Trust of Canada for an emerging lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender writer. The work often centres on the complexities of sexuality, queerness, childhood trauma and race.

You Still Look The Same reads as a poetic memoir reflecting on a time filled with vulnerability and opportunity. She begins the collection by intimately capturing the end of a 13-year relationship.

“When you’re in a long-term relationship, you assume that you’re with that person forever, so it was a very difficult breakup,” she said.

My shy text stumbles upstairs:

You okay?

Her reply tumbles down:

Sorry if I disturbed you.

I long to write:

I know this grief.

When she felt ready, she started dating online for the first time in her forties.

“I felt maybe the way I imagined people in their early twenties would feel, where you have this great sense of possibility. I wasn’t jaded yet about the process.”

In her poetry, Doctor also folds in firsts such as dating across genders, and non-monogamist relationships.

“There was a sense of possibility and liberation in being able to experience a lot of different things,” Doctor said.

My data suggests direct communication

is not a norm. There is much baby, baby, smile for me

and jokes that go one beat too far.

Although Doctor is known for her novels, she’s written poetry from a young age.

“Poetry is really accessible to you as a child. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but that’s part of the enjoyment. I enjoy the way poetry feels more like play to me than novel writing.”

After putting out Seven in 2020 – a book about an Indian-American mother who confronts the reality of the tradition of khatna, or female genital cutting, a tradition practised in the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Shia Islam – she feels more comfortable being vulnerable.

“I knew that poetry would also feel really vulnerable. And while there are elements in there that are absolutely not me and not my life, much of it is inspired by things that I have experienced.”

But there are nights alone in bed

when all I feel is

your stamp of shame

my body numb

my mind

too awake.

During this time, Doctor was coming to terms with her own trauma of khatna. “I was really processing my own feelings. Many of those early drafts of the poems that address khatna were my way of trying to make sense of some of these things.”

Doctor is vocal about her anti-FGM position and is part of We Speak Out, a group that seeks to end the dangerous procedure commonly performed on seven-year-old girls. She oversees the group’s Twitter page.

“I am the one who sees all of the trolls, and for a long time, the pro-khatna trolls were very active, very mean, very horrible. So, I started writing down the things that they were saying, and these are the more polite things.”

You’re lying

It’s just a tiny nick.

It’s my religious right.

It makes our girls clean.

But there is more to Doctor than writing and activism. After completing her masters in social work and earning a spot as a Registered Social Worker (RSW), she opened a part-time private psychotherapy practice in 2004. Doctor works from an anti-oppressive stand and specializes in techniques that help her clients process and release triggers of complex emotions – a practice that she says complements her writing by helping her stay present.

The pandemic years have been especially challenging time to be a therapist, she said. “There is this parallel processing happening where we’re often experiencing some of the exact same experiences at the same time as clients. You’re talking with people about how they’re so scared about the same things that you’re kind of scared about. At this level, it was quite intense.”

Although she has a clear and established boundary when it comes to drawing inspiration from her clients, Doctor recognizes the shared universal themes that also preoccupy her poetry.

Poetry can feel relatable, she said. When Doctor picks up a poetry collection, she doesn’t necessarily like, relate to, or understand every poem. Instead, she looks for the one or two poems in a collection that are going to be a “gut punch.”

“I really hope that this poetry collection does that for folks.”

When asked what’s next, the author assured me she had no intentions of putting the metaphorical pen down. She’s already shopping around a young adult novel and has ready the first draft of a self-care guide for caregivers, health professionals and activists.

Some things never change, I thought.

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